“I Think I Can, I Think I Can”: The Ongoing Conversation In Your Head

We all participate in an ongoing conversation in our heads. The content of this “self-talk” can make a difference in the behavior and effort level we put forward. Anytime you’ve talked yourself out of, or justified your decision to indulge in, eating a tempting food that went against your fitness goals, you were participating in self-talk. Anytime you attempt a new activity and talk through the action in your head (i.e. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that exercise”), you were engaging in self-talk. There are two different kinds of self-talk: positive (celebration and affirmation) and negative (doubt and pessimism).

Positive Self-talkNegative self-talk has been shown to decrease performance on a task.1 In one study, tennis players who exhibited negative self-talk lost more often than players with more positive inner dialogues.2 Likely this is caused by the negative emotions that are aroused as a result of negative self-talk, which clouds your judgement and decision making abilities (think about how easily your thoughts are clouded when you’re angry). Positive self-talk, on the other hand, can help increase both motivation and persistence.3

Types of negative self talk, and more positive alternatives:

All-or-Nothing:

You have to be 100% perfect, or else you’ve failed.

Alternative:

“Even though I missed a workout this week, I still did better in all of the other workouts than I ever have!”

Catastrophic Thinking:

One misstep will ruin everything.

Alternative:

“The weight didn’t come on overnight, and it won’t all come back from one mistake.”

Pessimistic Thinking:

Always thinking about what could potentially go wrong.

Alternative:

“Even though the workouts are tough, I know that I will probably have a good time with everyone else in class.”

“It’s-not-my-fault” Thinking:

Blaming others for your misfortunes (lack of perceived control).

Alternative:

“Even though my office routinely brings in donuts, I can find creative ways to avoid them.”

Comparing:

Always comparing yourself to others.

Alternative:

“I am better now than when I started.”

Mind Reading:

Assuming people are thinking the worst about you.

Alternative:

“Exercise is challenging for everybody.”


How can you improve your inner dialogue?

  1. Identify the negative dialogue you have with yourself by writing down any negative thoughts. How did those negative thoughts affect your behavior?
  2. Identify the origins of these statements, are they founded on facts or fears?
  3. Find a more positive replacement for any negative thoughts you have (similar to the table above). This will take a good deal of self-awareness, but it will help you stay motivated and excited to continue your fitness program.

Identifying when you are engaging in negative self-talk can help you change the conversation in your head. By keeping positive thoughts about your effort level and abilities, you can improve your motivation and performance and stay on track toward your fitness goals.

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